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Strength of the Union

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2021

My assessment continues to be that the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. It is the foundation on which all our citizens and businesses are able to thrive. The United Kingdom Government are committed to protecting and promoting the strengths of our United Kingdom.

The helping hand of the Union has left Scotland with no oil fund. It sees our renewables projects pay the highest grid charging levies in the entirety of Europe. In 2015, we saw the scrapping of plans for a carbon capture and underground storage plant in Peterhead, so I am simply seeking reassurance from the Secretary of State that the Acorn project will be one of two clusters to receive backing from his Government next month.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is under review. We want Acorn to be one of the tier 1 projects, and we are pressing for that. I think he should press for his colleagues and his Government in Scotland to support the oil and gas industry.

How is the Union strengthened by the increasingly divergent franchises on these islands? Scotland’s Parliament was elected in May with an electorate including 16 and 17-year-olds, refugees and EU nationals, while his Government’s Trumpian Elections Bill wants to suppress and restrict voter turnout. Surely that only increases the legitimacy and mandate of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, and makes this place even more detached from voters in Scotland.

I think the coalition with the Greens shows very clearly to everyone that one thing that the SNP failed to achieve in May was an outright majority.

“Shameful” and “disgrace” are words that Nicola Sturgeon likes to bandy at her opponents, but they truly apply to her announcement yesterday that while Scotland continues to have some of the worst covid rates in Europe, she is diverting resources into another divisive independence referendum. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the focus of this Government will be to work constructively across the United Kingdom to defeat covid, save jobs and restore our economy?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our focus is on rebuilding our economy. Our focus is on restoring our NHS. I think most right-minded Scots would agree that using civil service resources to design a prospectus for independence is the wrong thing to be doing at this time.

Over the summer, new data published by the SNP Scottish Government showed the Union dividend to be worth £2,210 a person in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that those figures simply confirm the benefit of Scotland remaining at the heart of a strong United Kingdom?

I absolutely would agree with my hon. Friend. I would add that the recent “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” reports in August showed that the deficit last year for the Scottish budget was £36.3 billion. That is more than the Scottish Government spend on education, housing, transport, culture and health.

We know that for the past two years, the Government have been spending taxpayers’ money researching public opinion in Scotland on the state of the Union. For two years, I have been trying to get answers as to what that research says. For two years, the Cabinet Office has refused, including appealing to the court of law and bringing in outside consultants to fund its case. Is it not time, if the Secretary of State believes so much that the Union is such a wonderful thing, for him to tell us what he has found out about what Scottish people think about the state of the Union and publish this research?

As I have said before at this Dispatch Box, that is a matter for the Cabinet Office, and I suggest the hon. Gentleman raises it at Cabinet Office questions.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the scale of the additional financial resource that Scotland received as a result of the covid pandemic? Does he agree that it is the strength of the UK balance sheet that allows the UK Government to support every part of the United Kingdom in times of crisis?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The strength of support was over £14 billion during the covid crisis, and the furlough support helped 900,000 jobs in Scotland at the height of the pandemic, which is nearly a third of the Scottish workforce.

May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our Olympians and Paralympians on their wonderful medals haul in Tokyo? May I also congratulate the Scottish football team on a marvellous result last night? However, he knows, as all Scots do, that it is the hope that kills you, so let us not celebrate too much.

Our shared social security system is vital to underpinning our Union, but by the next Scotland questions the Government will have made the largest ever overnight cut to social security for those in work by removing the £20 from universal credit. Citizens Advice Scotland says that more than half those people are worried about being able to buy food. At the same time, the Government have broken another promise and want to increase national insurance with the highest tax rise in 40 years. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that about 150,000 working families on low incomes in Scotland will pay an average of £100 extra in tax while losing £1,000. What advice does the Secretary of State give those families on low incomes on where they should cut £1,100 from their family budgets?

The uplift in universal credit was always intended to be temporary—it was to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the pandemic—and we now have the kickstart programme and a multibillion-pound plan for jobs. I understand it is difficult to break a manifesto promise, and the Prime Minister was clear that he was doing that in raising national insurance, but he also had a manifesto promise to address social care, which, since Tony Blair said he would address it in 1997, has not been done.

There is no money going into social care, but we will leave that for a different time. Last week, Labour’s shadow team visited Orkney and its European Marine Energy Centre. It has facilities such as the most powerful tidal turbine in the world, which results in its having excess energy that it cannot get back to the mainland. At the same time, the Scottish and UK Governments are backing the Cambo oilfield. With COP26 coming to Scotland, should the Secretary of State not lead by example, refuse Cambo and reform the outdated transmission charge regime while providing funding for a new large-capacity interconnector between Orkney and Shetland and the mainland? That would bring huge benefits and innovation to the islands and power large parts of Scotland from renewable resources.

On Cambo, all our North sea oil licences are factored into the 2050 net zero plan. Discussions are ongoing on the interconnector. It is partly devolved, with Ofgem and others involved. However, leaving that to one side, I take the overall view that there will be multiple uses for oil and gas for years to come—people must understand that—and we may as well get oil domestically rather than import it.